Composer Jan Bach
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Jan Bach was born December 11, 1937 in Forrest, Illinois.
He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in 1959 from the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in
composition there in 1971. His teachers included Robert Kelly and Kenneth Gaburo. He
also studied with Aaron Copland and Roberto Gerhard at Tanglewood in
1961 and with Thea
Musgrave in Aldeburgh and London in 1974.
In 1957 he won the BMI Student Composers first prize. He later won
the Koussevitsky competition at Tanglewood, the Harvey Gaul Composition
Contest, the Mannes College opera competition, the Sigma Alpha Iota
choral composition award, first prize at the First International Brass
Congress in Montreux, Switzerland, grants from the National Endowment
for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, the Brown University choral
composition award, first prize in the Nebraska Sinfonia chamber orchestra
competition, and first prize in the New York City Opera competition. He
has been nominated six times for the Pulitzer Prize in music, and in 1982,
he was awarded a Presidential Research Professorship grant.
From 1962 to 1965 he was associate first horn
in the U. S. Army Band at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. Upon discharge,
he taught for one year at the University of Tampa, Florida, and played
in the orchestras of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Since 1966 he has taught
theory and composition courses at Northern Illinois University in
DeKalb. In 1978 he was selected as one of three professors receiving
the Excellence in Teaching award; in 1982 he was recipient of one of the first
eight prestigious Presidential Research Professorship grants instituted by the university. For six years he was
Northern Illinois University's nominee for the national CASE Professor of the Year award. Although taking an early retirement in 1998, he
continued to teach one course each semester at the NIU School of Music
until June of 2004.
== Names which are links on this webpage refer
to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
Being at Northern Illinois University, which is in DeKalb,
about fifty miles west of Chicago, Jan Bach came into the city quite
often. In October of 1990, we arranged to meet at my home-studio
for an interview. He was glad to meet with me, having heard my programs
for a few years on WNIB,
A performance of his opera The Happy Prince was being given
here, and I was happy to promote the production. Naturally, I took
the opportunity to speak with the composer about it, as well as many other
musical topics in order to do other programs in my on-going series devoted
to living American composers.
For some reason that is completely unknown to me now, while we were
setting up, we were chatting about various tunings, so that is where
we pick up the conversation . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Where do you come down on
the business of changing the tuning from the equal temperament that
we’re all used to?
Jan Bach: I take that basically for granted.
I haven’t worked with unusual tunings at all. I’m concerned
about the inflections that are used. One of the reasons I stopped
writing twelve-tone music was that was only music which keyboard players,
who happened to be composers, could work within. I’ve never considered
A-sharp the same as a B-flat. It tells you where you’re going.
As a French horn player, I would inflect a note one direction or
the other to try to give a sneak preview of where that note was going
to go. That’s what a teacher may call ‘playing
between the notes’. Anybody can just
play the notes, one note after the other, but to connect one note to
another, one really needs to be able to make that inflection.
String quartets do it all the time.
BD: Is that something the audience will
pick up on, or is it that they just don’t understand this technicality?
Bach: They hear it if it’s not done very
well, unless it’s piano or some fixed-pitch instrument. A quartet
is capable of it, and it doesn’t have to be a string quartet. It
could be a trombone quartet, or any place where there’s infinite variety
of pitch modifications.
BD: Even reed instruments can bend the
Bach: Yes, and they do. The problem
with reed instruments is that if you change one hole on the instruments,
it may change every other note on that instrument. So, you’re
better off doing it with your embouchure than you are filing holes larger
or filling them to make them smaller.
BD: I assume that the embouchure could
take care of most things in between each half step, one way or the
Bach: Look at George Gershwin’s Rhapsody
in Blue. That opening swoop that the clarinet player plays,
he didn’t know was possible on the instrument. He came in for
the rehearsal and Ross Gorman, the clarinet player, was just screwing
around. He played that, and George said it was great, and to leave
BD: Because he had wanted all the notes?
Bach: Yes. If you look at the original
manuscript, it shows a chromatic scale running all the way up to that
high note. The way the clarinet player does that is to move the
fingers sideways on those holes which are open, so they gradually open
more and more, and that raises the pitch. As a French horn player,
you’ve got an infinite variety of notes by moving your hand in the bell
BD: But each time you’d have to change
the fingering. Could you get it to be a clean swoop the way
a clarinet can?
Bach: I can’t! [Both laugh]
Barry Tuckwell has worked out a system of quarter-tone fingerings
by using those odd harmonics on the instrument. I use those in
the slow movement of my Horn Concerto that Jon Boen played here
in 1983. [Boen was the Principal Horn with Lyric Opera of Chicago
and the Grant Park Festival Orchestra for many years.]
BD: Gershwin discovered that because
the instrumentalist was noodling around. Have you ever glommed
onto something you didn’t know was possible because you heard an instrumentalist
or a vocalist doing it?
Bach: Yes. In the Horn Concerto,
I knew that a friend of mine at the University of Wisconsin, Doug Hill,
was putting out a book on extended techniques of the French horn. I
said I really would like to use some of those, but I don’t know what
they are. He said that the book won’t be available until the following
year, but he’d make me a deal. If I would write a piece for a concert
he was giving in Avignon, France, that summer, he would send me a pre-publication
copy of the book. There were a couple of effects that even as a
horn player I didn’t know about, and had never thought to use.
For instance, you can use a middle mute in the bell of a horn, which
has a little plunger that sticks out. If you put your hand over
that, you can get a very unusual wah-wah effect, almost like a tape distortion
when an old open-reel tape got warped. So, I used that in the concerto.
BD: Did you use that as an effect, or
did it really fit into the music?
Bach: I hope it fitted into the music.
Jon has a very, very bright sound, and what happened when he would
play a portion of the cadenzas, he’d come to a very loud note, which
was the last note in a phrase, and as he stopped that note, one of the
horns in the orchestra would play this effect. It came off like
the instrument was ricocheting off the walls. I thought it made
sense. It wasn’t just an effect. In fact, I’m very conservative
that way. I won’t use an effect unless I think it will work in
the piece. [With a nudge] I may go twenty or thirty measures
without any special effects! [Both laugh] After all, the performers
were trained to play through their instruments. Brass players
have been ruined by people who didn’t understand how the instrument
was supposed to work. For instance, they have played some pieces where
they are asked to play one high note, and then one low note, and a high
note, and another low note — all very
short notes — and before you know
it, they can’t play long notes anymore. When I was in the Army band,
I forgot how to play a whole note, because the horns played ‘oom-pah, oom-pah,
BD: You start playing off the beat, and
by the end of the concert, you’re still playing off the beat!
Bach: Absolutely, if you’re lucky!
We’re off-beat specialists. So are the violists. Ask a
viola when was the last time he played a long note!
BD: Do you take great pride in making
sure that when you write an orchestral score, or even a march, that
you turn things upside down and make the trumpets off the beat, and give
the melodic line to the French horns, or in the violas?
Bach: Well, I give the horns plenty of
melodic material. I don’t want anybody to sit there bored.
It’s bad enough if the audience is bored, but if the performers themselves
are bored, you’ve got nothing. That’s one of the problems with
a lot of contemporary music. The melody itself is split
up among a lot of different instruments, and no one person is playing
the whole line, and can say, “This is the melody,
let me pass it around.” Instead, here’s
one note, and somebody else can play another note.
BD: That sounds a bit like augenmusik
[eye-music, or something that must be seen on the page to be appreciated].
Bach: Yes, it is to some extent.
It’s also Klangfarbenmelodie [sound-color melody, where a
musical line is split among several instruments]. There are
all sorts of words in German to express what I mean [laughs], but my
concern is that this is assembly-line music, and it appears in a lot of
the minimalist music that has been heard lately. A friend of mine,
who has the choir at Northern, said that he literally had to take members
out of the choir and have them sit in the auditorium during a rehearsal,
so they could hear the pattern everybody else was developing when they
get into the ensemble. They’re too close to it, and they don’t know
how their part fits in with the rest of them. It becomes a texture.
It’s like one dot not knowing his place in a Seurat painting unless he
gets outside of it, and can see the effect of all the dots.
BD: Does the audience have the ability
to see — or hear!
— what all the dots are?
Bach: If the performance comes off convincingly,
all those connections are made. But it’s very hard for the performers,
sitting in the middle of the orchestra, to know this. There
are too many composers who have never played in an ensemble. There
are pianists, a lot of keyboard wizards, but when you’re in the middle
of an orchestra it is different than playing alone. In the brass
section, for instance, I heard more timpani than anything else.
So, I have always over-written for the strings because from my position,
all the sound holes in the string instruments were facing the opposite
direction, and to me, string sound was a kind of ephemeral distance away
from everything else that was happening in the orchestra.
BD: You had to learn how to rebalance
Bach: I really have had to, yes.
Normally I have to tone the strings down, because from the front of
the orchestra, it’s gang busters. Strings come out much stronger
than I ever realized. You don’t need winds and brass to have
a good loud orchestra piece. You can have just strings playing, and
when they’re playing by themselves, they seem, psychologically, as loud
as the whole orchestra does when its playing. It’s a very curious
* * *
BD: Coming back to the audience, are you conscious
of them when you’re writing?
Bach: I’m very conscious of the audience,
because the worst thing is for the audience to be bored. I like
to think that if I didn’t have this fifteen-minute piece of music
here, these people would be sitting in the audience for fifteen minutes
listening to nothing. So, I have to make it exciting for them.
That doesn’t mean that I try to write down to my audience. I try
to imagine an audience that has ears, that can recognize distances of intervals,
that know if I take a theme that I can widen it out, or make the intervals
smaller, or do various other things. I hope they’ll catch some of
that. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Benjamin Britten, when people
would write that he used all of the stunts that you’re supposed to learn
in the music appreciation class about how a composer develops his material.
But we have to consider that the ear’s a lot slower than the eye at recognizing
patterns, and the most austere kind of twelve-tone music, where redundancy
was a sin, people also lost communication. If I have a class of forty
people at the university, I have to repeat myself much more often than
if I have a class of twenty people.
BD: [Somewhat perplexed] Why’s
Bach: I don’t know, but we all know that
when you have that number of people in the audience, there’s more
of a chance that a certain percentage of them are going to be going
off in dreamland.
BD: If you’ve got twenty and you lose
one, you don’t worry about it, but if you have forty and you lose
three or four, then you go back and pick them up?
Bach: That’s right, and also there are
more people asking questions if there are forty in a class. Generally,
I team-teach a course in English Literature and Music, and the connections
between them. Inter-disciplinary courses are being taught now
at Northern, and we find that we go through the material much more quickly
when we have a small class of fifteen or so, and it takes a lot more
time to go through the material when you have a class of forty.
We have an Honors class of fifteen one year, and we have the regular,
General Education class of forty the next year, so a certain amount of
that redundancy is built in. I notice that when you’re mentioning
a phone number over the radio, particularly for your Program Guide, you mention
that more than once so that people will get it. That’s redundancy!
There’s a famous monograph about a General looking at military band, and
talking about the waste and inefficiency. He’s talking about the
fact that the trombone slides are all moving the same direction at the
BD: That’s waste???
Bach: First of all, that’s not waste,
that’s an inaccuracy. He felt you could get rid of most of them
because they’re all duplicating each other’s effort. But he wants
them to keep that effort initially, because you do things uniformly
in the Army. You all carry your riffles at the same angle, and
you all march on the same foot at the same time. Then, of course,
all the string players are duplicating the same part, to a large extent.
Maybe the General would suggest that they go down to single players
on a part. Speaking of that, my wife and I went to a performance
of On Your Toes in New York when it was revived, and I don’t think
they had more than a string quartet along with woodwinds in the pit. They
were able to amplify the sound so much using ring modulation, that it sounded
like a full chorus of strings.
BD: So now then we’re producing more and
more string players for fewer and fewer jobs?
Bach: I didn’t know they were producing
more and more string players. We certainly don’t have very many
right now at Northern, and we’re hoping that it’s just a phase. From
top to bottom, every year we’re down in some instrument or another.
We’ve got plenty of cellos now. We have very few violins, and we
also have more violas then we’ve had for several years.
BD: We’ve had treble clef euphoniums,
so now we should have bass clef violins. [Much laughter]
Bach: Yes, that’s right! It would
get a little more depth to the sound, if nothing else! [More
laughter] There are problems, though, with supply and demand.
We’ve had a terrible situation in the last three or four years with some
of the second lane orchestras biting the dust, and then reorganizing in much
more modest circumstances.
BD: I can think of Oakland, and Denver...
Bach: ...and the New Orleans Symphony.
We’ve got to keep an audience for what I call ‘serious music’, or classical
music, or ‘contemporary serious music’, or whatever name you want
to give to it, because otherwise why will an orchestra be in demand
in the first place? We’ve got to bring people away from their
home into the concert hall, and they have to hear this music somewhere
or they won’t develop a taste and appreciation for it. They certainly
won’t develop that taste or appreciation by hearing little snippets of
La Bohème in the various commercials on television.
I’m really upset about that.
BD: Now you say you’ve got to get people
out of their homes. Radio and recordings won’t keep them in their
Bach: Actually, CDs are allowing certain
concert sounds to come through. I know that in Tristan and
Isolde you can hear Karajan breathing, which is interesting because
the CD is able to pick that up, and they didn’t try to mask it in any
way. You might hear noises like that, which are somewhat distracting
in a live performance, and that’s all to the good. The old LP recordings
sometimes were too antiseptic, and made you believe that if you went to
a concert hall, you were going to hear everything through a veil of silence.
When going to the Lyric Opera, if you sit in the main floor, it’s ‘Cough
City’. You hear coughing constantly. These are, of course,
some of the older people who have more bronchial infections during the
bad winters here in Chicago.
BD: It gets worse and worse as the weather
gets colder and colder.
Bach: Yes, but there is more rapt silence
up in the balcony.
BD: That’s where I am, up in the cheap
seats. But I remember hearing a tremendous intake of breath in
the recordings of Bluebeard’s Castle when they open the fifth
Bach: I’ve known people that were so disappointed
when they go to live concerts. They said for years the Beatles
were not able to perform Sgt. Pepper in live concert because of
all the electronic tricks that had been done with the recording. Every
place they went, people wanted Sgt. Pepper...
BD: ...and they couldn’t recreate it.
Bach: They couldn’t recreate it, no.
BD: Now, the rock singers are just lip-synching
to their records.
Bach: I know. It’s incredible.
I can’t believe people would go see something like that.
BD: Is that a fraud?
Bach: I don’t know. The audience
knows it. They accept whatever conventions they grow up with,
and if everybody lip-synchs, I guess they’ll accept it.
* * *
BD: Let me ask the big philosophical question.
What is the purpose of music?
Bach: As far as music is concerned, I’ve
been thinking about this, and how I got into it. It’s partly
from my experience in programming a computer with some very simple,
basic programs that I’ve written for our students to use to drill them
on basic theory and orchestration and counterpoint. When you want
to talk about the expressive elements, my point of view as a composer
is that I like controlling people. I like being able to give a
set of instructions that they must follow, because, God knows, nowhere
else in my life does anybody listen to me at all.
BD: Do your kids listen to you?
Bach: Not very much. [Both laugh]
They say, “Daddy’s going off on one of
his wild tirades again.”
BD: But when you write a piece of music,
do the performers have to do exactly what you tell them?
Bach: They try. They generally try
very, very hard to do this, and I’ve been happy that most performers
have enjoyed playing my music. I don’t abuse the performer.
I try to stretch them somewhat, but I try to keep it within the realm.
They always tell me that my music is hard, but it’s not impossible.
It doesn’t make demands that are going to ruin them when the next piece
comes up that they have to play.
BD: Is it worth the difficulty of getting
around the technical problems?
Bach: I hope so, and I hope the difficulties
don’t come out of simply not knowing the instruments well enough to
know what is awkward to write and what isn’t. But I really should
address your question directly. I think that music is necessary
just because it is a non-verbal means of communication with people. We’ve
seen over the last few years how important non-verbal means can be, how
orphans that are not cradled in the nursery and given some love and affection,
will die. That’s a non-verbal kind of communication, but it’s necessary,
and music must be necessary. It must strike some sympathetic chord
— no pun intended —
because it would not have been around as long as it has been,
otherwise. We find the most primitive tribes delighting in rhythm,
delighting in rhymes, delighting in the sounds of their own voice.
I think of rhyme and various syllables of languages as music, too, because
they’re like tone colors of music. An AAH [as in apple] is like
a trumpet, and an OOH [as in flute!] is like a flute, and we have those
sounds built into our language. So, there’s music in the language.
Perhaps what happens is that those sounds are removed and abstracted
from their meaning in normal everyday conversation, and, in that regard,
we say that we are hearing this. We recognize the individual sounds
of this music, or these sounds are like the sounds we make when we’re speaking,
but they’re not put together in a framework that is going to going to
destroy the abstract meaning. In that way, one appreciates a poem
better if it’s in a language that one doesn’t understand, because you
are listening to the pure sounds of the poem, and don’t hang it on some
kind of prosaic image that we see around us.
BD: I wonder if a good illustration of
this is the Peanuts cartoons that you see on the television.
The kids are talking, and we understand their words, but then when the
teacher or some other adult talks, it’s a trombone going, “Wah,
Bach: Right! My eldest
daughter came home from school one day and said, “I
just don’t understand Mr. Such & Such. He says such complicated
BD: There’s a wonderful book called Vermont
Is Where You find It. It is half pictures and half words,
and one photo shows some guy on the soapbox yacking to a small audience.
One guy says, “What’s he talking about?” and another guy says “He
don’t say!” [Much laughter]
Bach: That’s an old Spike Jones routine.
Somebody picks up a phone and says, “You don’t say! You don’t
say!” He hangs up and was asked, “Who was it?” “He didn’t
say!” [More laughter]
BD: Is there a connection between Spike Jones and PDQ
Bach? The thing that makes PDQ Bach funny is the fact that it is
accurate. His analysis of the Beethoven Fifth is a hundred
percent on the money. If he were just taking it off and just doing
everything and making it wrong, it wouldn’t be funny.
Bach: That’s the same reason why Anna
Russell’s funny, but only to a number of people that appreciate what
she does. But I don’t think Florence Foster Jenkins is very funny.
She’s kind of pathetic, because, from what I understand, she really
thought she was performing. But Peter Schickele was
at one time Persichetti’s
graduate assistant at Juilliard. I have a friend who was in
the class, and he told me about one day when the trains weren’t
running, or for some reason Persichetti wasn’t there. So, Peter
would show up for this counterpoint class and he’d say, “Now, kids,
today I’m going to teach you something for which you will have no use
for the rest of your life,” and proceed to teach it. But then he
did use it, because he used all these things. The Art of the
Ground Round (for three baritones and discontinuo, S. 1.19/lb) is absolutely
a gorgeous piece of music, and if you’ll notice, in some of them the ostinato
repeats at a different time than the phrase structure of the piece.
That’s not an easy thing to do and bring it off, but he’s capable of doing
BD: Have you ever thought of writing a spoof
of something? [Vis-à-vis the recordings shown at right,
see my interviews with Steven Stucky, Arthur Berger,
and George Rochberg.]
Bach: I have written spoofs. In fact,
people have gotten me confused with PDQ Bach because the piece of
mine that gets performed more than anything else, Four Two-Bit Contraptions,
was written when I was in the Army. They were written as a birthday
gift to a former horn student of mine whose roommate was a flautist.
Those two girls never did perform the piece, but it’s been performed all
over. It was supposed to have been done at the Santa Fe Music Festival
this summer, with Ransom Wilson and Julie Landsman, who is first horn
in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, but she got ill the night of the
performance. [Pauses for effect] I wondered if she would have
gotten sick performing somebody else’s music! [Both laugh] But
often people think that maybe they were really written by PDQ Bach.
My name is really Bach, but I am no relation. I cannot be.
My grandfather came from Alsace, north of Strasbourg. He left when
he was about seven or eight, and came to this country, and settled in Central
Illinois along with a lot of another hearty German folk.
BD: Has having the name Bach been a
help or a hindrance to you and your musical career, or would you have
been better off being a pharmacist?
Bach: [Wistfully] Oh, I probably
would have been better off financially being a pharmacist or a doctor,
but I don’t really know. People remember my name, there’s no
doubt about that. When I met Leonard Bernstein, years ago at Tanglewood,
he said, “Oh, you’re Jan Bach.” I said,
“How do you know my name?” and he said, “When I arrived this morning,
I was looking at the roster of students, and I saw your name at the top.
I thought, ‘God, what a name for a musician!’
So, what’s your real name?” I said, “Bach! What’s
yours?” [Much laughter] It really endeared me to Lenny.
He was a wonderful, wonderful man, and a terrific conductor. I
really wished he had done more conducting and left the composing to other
people, because after West Side Story, I think he basically
repeated himself. There were a couple of nice pieces...
BD: How do you make sure that you don’t
Bach: Oh, I repeat myself all the time.
I developed my own language. I suppose I’ve really had my style
since I was in college, because I wrote very early. I started
writing when I was seven years old. It was all I ever wanted to
do — that and draw cartoons. I
only wanted to do things that were not really acceptable in mixed circles.
I still caricature, and I’ve been interested in a variety of expressions
of art. A person’s background and experiences are what really determine
whether he’s going to express him or herself in visual arts or music,
but that creative urge will come through.
BD: Are you left-handed? It seems that
a lot of artists are left-handed.
Bach: My father and my sister are both left-handed.
My father was a cabinet maker, and that’s a kind of an artistic trait,
or at least a tendency. He just never had the opportunity to
take piano lessons, but I think he wanted to. He’s 78 years old,
and he’s still going up to Canada to build cabins for a Boy Scout camp
they’ve being developing at the Canadian border. My mother’s a
good cook, and I suppose that that’s her artistic preference. It’s
got to come out some way or other.
BD: Are you glad that you are a creative
person who writes music, or would you rather be a performer?
Bach: I am a performer. I was hired
originally at Northern as a performer, and I’ve played in some second
line orchestras. But a lot of horn players get dissatisfied.
I don’t know if it’s the nature of the material, but if you’re a violinist
you don’t have time to think about it. With a horn player, you
have a lot of rests, particularly in orchestras. Then, when you
do play, there’s so much routine music you think you could be doing something
BD: Then let me turn the question around.
Are you a better composer because you are a good performer?
Bach: No doubt about it. I’m
not that great a composer, but I’d be really awful if I had never learned
to play an instrument or played in an ensemble, because at least
I know what the expectations are. I know, for instance, you can’t
have the music written in as difficult a fashion for a full orchestra
as you can for a solo group, or a small chamber ensemble. There’s
a much more finely honed ensemble experience in a small group, which is
why a lot of orchestral strings like to get together into small string
quartets and play. When you’ve got the full group there, some of
the sounds sort of blur, and you can’t be quite as exact when attacking
specific notes. The tone certainly doesn’t vary as much when you’ve
got a chorus of people all playing at once on the same part, so you have
to keep that in mind. You might create a very interesting rhythm
and love to use it, but you think you’d better save it for the next chamber
piece, and not use it for this orchestra piece. You have to keep
in mind, if nothing else, that there’s going to be a distance of thirty-five
or forty feet between the concert master and the tuba player, and the tuba
also may be much slower-speaking once he puts the air through the horn.
BD: Also, the double basses take a moment
to start their sound.
Bach: Yes, they take a moment to sort
of warm up the instrument. If you see a person playing the tam-tam
or gong, they literally have to warm up the instrument by stroking
it slightly with the stick to get the vibrations started before they
can come in with that big clap of sound.
BD: They have to prime it. [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, see my interviews with William Mathias, and Sir Richard Rodney Bennett.]
Bach: To prime it, yes. They definitely
have to do that, and so there’s some adjustments that one can only learn
from playing in an ensemble.
BD: I read a story that one time, the Philadelphia
Orchestra was making a recording, and for some reason the engineers
wanted the double-basses way up front, close for the microphone. However,
they were always ahead because...
Bach: ...they were used to anticipating.
They were conditioned to play a little ahead of the beat. Our choir
director also plays the organ in the Episcopal Church, and it’s a tracker
organ. He has to always play the keys just a fraction of a second
before he wants them to sound. Then, he’s also conducting us
at the same time in the choir. I don’t know how anybody can do
that. It’s interesting what you said, because I remember Leopold
Stokowski had the American Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall
in Washington D.C., when I was in the Army. He did the Tchaikovsky
Fourth Symphony, and he had the most unusual arrangement I’d ever
seen for an orchestra. He had all of the violins and violas on the
left side of the orchestra, and the cellos directly in front of him, so
that the sound would come out into the audience. All the woodwinds
and brass were on the conductor’s right, and the string basses were behind
the woodwinds and brass, very close to the front of the stage. All
the percussion was behind the strings on the opposite side. It was
a very strange mishmash, because there are times when Tchaikovsky really
did want first and second violins on opposite sides for that ricochet effect
he had built into the music.
BD: Almost like stereo, harking back
Bach: Absolutely, yes. Rimsky Korsakov
also had, as I understand it, music stands in the large work room
that he used, set out like a symphony orchestra would be, so he could
see and visualize — or audioize
— where the sound would be coming from.
BD: When I’m at Orchestral Hall here
in Chicago, I prefer to sit upstairs if I can, so I can watch the
orchestration as well as hear it.
Bach: Do you also notice that the further
away you get, the more it blends, and you have more difficulty hearing
the directionality of the sound?
BD: Very slightly, but then I’m watching
and hearing it together.
Bach: Your eye maybe takes the place
of that. For instance, I’ve always had some trouble getting
used to some of these stereo recordings, because in most orchestra situations,
I don’t hear that separation, especially with certain doublings, like
flute and clarinet, or oboe and clarinet playing together.
BD: They come from two different places
on the stereo arc?
Bach: They’re in two different places,
but the composer intended them to be heard as one new instrument.
Take the Polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper. He
makes extensive use of that doubling, and it wouldn’t do it any good
if they’re heard as a separate clarinet and a separate oboe.
BD: You’re hearing it from where the
conductor is standing, and usually that’s almost the worst place to
hear an orchestra. [At this point, I needed to turn over the
cassette, and we spent a few moments just chit-chatting about mundane
things...] I’m sure I’m nothing at all like what you visualized.
Most people imagine me as tall, and thin, and very old, rather
than short and dumpy...
Bach: I thought you would be older, but I
didn’t know how long you’d been working at WNIB. [Click HERE to see an appropriate cartoon.]
BD: It’s my sixteenth year, so in radio
I’m an old man.
Bach: You’re not as young as you look,
then? You look like you’re about thirty-five years old.
BD: Next year I hit the big four-oh!
Bach: I really only started listening to
WNIB about four years ago when I found that our cable set up would
bring it in, because it’s very hard to pick it up over the air. It
seems to be easier to hear your late at night. I pick you up on
my car radio in my garage, and when I’m in the house I have to have
the cable attached to it, or I can’t hear you.
BD: Do you encourage your students to
sometimes listen to the station?
Bach: I encourage them to listen to anything
that would broadcast serious music, but it’s a losing battle because
they’re all into their own thing.
BD: I just wondered if you could go through
the Program Guide and find something very interesting, and
literally assign it?
Bach: I will do that. I’d like
to do it, except that they have difficulty in picking the radio in
their dorm rooms. Some of the university buildings, including
our music building, have so much steel in the structure that it’s like
a giant magnet, and then it just doesn’t pick up like it should.
BD: You’re in a fringe area, so anything
that’s going to interfere is going to interfere more because the signal
is weaker that far away from the transmitter, which is downtown.
Bach: Even with the cable, I have to
put it on ‘monaural mode’ on the receiver
so I don’t get the whooshing sound back and forth.
BD: It’s even bad downtown on the Near
North side. The sound just bounces all over among the huge
Bach: My cousin’s a stockbroker who lives
on the Near North side, and he complains that they don’t allow him to
have cable service in the condominium he has, and the buildings are so
tall that he can’t pick up half the stations. On the television,
he gets this terrible ghosting image on every channel. He bought
a property close to his father’s home, which is a hundred miles south of
here, in order to be able to see some of the television shows that he
can’t see in Chicago. He goes down there every weekend.
BD: I know that in the same building,
one apartment can get us perfectly, clear as a bell, and the guy in
the next apartment, or one floor up, can’t get us at all.
Bach: There are a lot of things I would
love to hear in stereo. I’m a stereo nut. I even have a
3-D camera, and I still take 3-D pictures.
BD: It has two lenses?
Bach: Yes. In fact, now they’re coming
out now with one that has four lenses. It’s a constant blend,
and they put the pictures out as prints with these little corrugated
plastic backings. You turn it slightly, and it’s a kind of shallow
3-D. Your eyes see a portion of three or four different pictures,
and blends them.
* * *
BD: Let’s talk about The
Happy Prince. This is being done here in Chicago?
Bach: It’s being done by a new emerging orchestra,
just a wonderful orchestra, called Symphony of the Shores. My
wife and I attended their gala opening concert last Spring , and
I thought it was just terrific.
BD: Did they approach you, or did you
Bach: As it turns out, a couple of the
performers teach at Northern, and for the first concert they wanted
a work about eight minutes long for string orchestra, so they asked
me if I had anything, and I said no, I don’t. I said I did have
a thirty-minute piece for string orchestra, and they said they might
consider that. But then they were interested in hearing some more
of my music, and I happened to have this recording of The Happy Prince,
which was done in Omaha at least nine or ten times for people of all ages.
It won a contest back in 1978.
BD: What is it scored for?
Bach: It’s scored for single woodwinds, two
trumpets, two horns and one trombone, small strings, a lot of percussion,
a keyboard player who plays piano, harpsichord, and celeste, narrator,
and a solo violinist, who represents the swallow in the story. This
is a very famous story. It pops up everywhere. It’s based
on an Oscar Wilde story. Bing Crosby brought out a recording of it,
and Loretta Swit was going to put out a recording of it after she finished
with the M*A*S*H TV series. [The
story had been adapted for radio by Orson Welles in 1944, featuring a musical
score by Bernard Herrmann. It was aired on the Philco Radio Hall of Fame
broadcast on December 24, 1944 featuring Bing Crosby alongside Orson Welles,
with Herrmann's music conducted by Victor Young. Lurene Tuttle played
The Swallow. Decca Records signed up the participants to make a commercial
recording the following August. It appeared as a two-disc 78-rpm
album, and then a 10" LP in 1949. The other recording was issued
as the B side of an Open Sky LP in 1984, with Swit, John Carradine, Keith
Carradine, and music by Martin Scot Kosins.]
BD: Tell me how your version came about.
Bach: I long felt that there was a need
for concert material that went beyond Peter and the Wolf. One
of the things that annoys me about that piece
— and it’s not Prokofiev’s fault —
is that he wrote it at a time when microphones were not used
to the extent they are today. So, the orchestra has to come to a
grinding halt every time the narrator has to the mention the next bit of
storyline. What I wanted to do was to write a piece in which the storyline
was included in the orchestration. I would have little windows, places
where the orchestration would thin out so that the narrator could be heard.
With the modern public address systems we have, this is no problem...
provided you get the microphone in the right place. The work itself
is thirty-five minutes long, which makes it much longer than Peter
and the Wolf, but it was necessary to tell the story. It’s also
much more challenging. Children are certainly capable of seeing all
sorts of areas of life that are not all happiness and sunshine, and I won’t
say I get a grim satisfaction out of hearing children weep during the program,
except that I was aware that they did have these depths that could be plumbed
from time to time. When we did it in Omaha, every group of children
that listened to the performances of the Omaha Symphony, with my wife reading
the words, were all touched by it. It struck nerves that had never
been struck before, because we’re becoming more and more in the frame of
mind that children shouldn’t be exposed to these things. We feel they
get enough of it when they grow up, so they’re expurgating a lot of children’s
BD: Was this a happy ending though?
Bach: It’s a happy ending in a way.
The Swallow dies, and the statue of The Happy Prince is melted down
for scrap, but their souls climb to heaven and live with God for ever
more. At that point, the orchestra breaks into this huge Baroque
music which borrows a little bit from every baroque composer I’ve ever
heard. It’s a joyous type of thing you’d hear in a setting of the
Magnificat, because to me that’s what Heaven is like. I’ve
been in enough Southern German cathedrals where you see you see putty and
cherubs falling out of the plaster on the ceiling. It’s very Baroque
and ornate. I’d love to think that Heaven was something like that.
That’s the grand finale of the piece. The rest of the music tries
to match the actions of the narrator with appropriate musical symbols.
There’s a hornpipe that is heard when The Swallow flies down to the waterfront,
and there are little leitmotifs for The Happy Prince, who is really
quite sad, and for the pedestal he stands upon, and for The Swallow who
stops there on his way to Egypt. The music for Egypt is actually
authentic Egyptian music that I found on an old Folkways recording. I
rewrote it and tried to make it sound like authentic Egyptian instruments.
That comes back several times because The Swallow wants to go to Egypt,
but The Happy Prince keeps him there — wherever
he is, in Brussels, or London, or some cold Northern city of Europe
— because he wants the little swallow to take
the statue’s gold leaf and his jeweled sword and various things to distribute
them among the poor. It’s a kind of Christmas story, or a story for
any relationship of man to man, woman to woman, child to child, in which
charity and certain redemption is involved. As I said, the story
pops up in unusual ways. I remember seeing a movie called The
Eye of the Needle, taken from the Ken Follett novel. Donald
Sutherland, who is a very brutal murderer, is sitting in this tiny little
farm house, next to a lighthouse, up on one of the far Northern British
Isles, reading this story to a little boy who he later tries to murder.
Some people confuse this story with The Little Prince, which is
something totally different. This is The Happy Prince, which
was part of a group of stories of Oscar Wilde [published in May, 1888],
including The Selfish Giant, The Nightingale and the Rose,
and other stories. I first came in touch with this when I was in
fifth grade. Close to Christmas one year, our teacher read this
story to us, and it made an immediate effect on me. I thought that
it would be a wonderful story to set to music, but it took years and years
before I felt I was really ready to do that.
BD: It just sat there and fermented in
Bach: I think so, yes. It was one of
those things I always intended to do. I’ve always intended, for
instance, to write a story based on another well-known fairy tale, in
which all of the instruments do things that are totally unlike what they’re
supposed to be doing. That would really confuse people, but
would be a tongue-in-cheek kind of travesty. I was hoping to get
somebody that looks like Percy Dovetonsils (the character created by
Ernie Kovacs) to do it.
BD: With this idea for The Happy
Prince germinating in your mind all these years, did you find that
when you finally sat down to write it that the ideas just flowed out,
or was it difficult to write each measure?
Bach: They did flow out to the extent
that I had time. The catalyst for it was the birth of our second
daughter, Eva, and when I wrote the piece, I dedicated it to both
Dawn and Eva, our two children. Actually, I started before she
was born. I started writing it in December, after the first
semester of teaching was over in 1977, and she was born in January of
’78. I didn’t get anything written for the next couple of months
after that. [Laughs] There was just too much activity in
the house! But then, when school was out in May, I wrote the rest
of it. I had been trying to kick a cigarette habit for a long time,
and that was one of the times when I stopped smoking and was basically
OD-ing on jellybeans. I think that sugar did something to me, because
it’s one of the most involved scores I’ve ever written. It was,
for me, a kind of breakthrough of a lot of new techniques that I had not
used before, and they were all in the main of illustrating the story.
For instance, near the end of the story, every instrument of the orchestra
has simultaneous cadenzas. This is where the words the narrator
is speaking are about how all the town councilors argued among themselves.
BD: So it’s perfectly appropriate!
Bach: It was appropriate, and I thought it’s
nice in a way. Perhaps this can introduce some contemporary techniques
of composition to an audience that would not accept them unless there
was a program attached to them. In other words, if there was a reason
for it, it would make sense.
BD: The way you describe it sounds like
a hell of a row!
Bach: Oh, it is! It’s awful. The
clarinet is up there, shrieking away, and the trumpets are all muted
and sound like they’re thumbing their noses at people. The town
councilors are arguing which one will have a statue in their image after
they melted The Happy Prince. Of course, the Mayor wants it to be
a statue of himself, and each of the town councilors want it to be a
statue of himself, so that’s how they start the argument. In any
other situation, people will listen to that and say the orchestra’s gone
totally crazy, but for this case, it was very appropriate. Also, at
one point they say that the statue’s heart is breaking, and there is a
long, low rubbing sound. I can’t remember the exact words, but it
is as though something was breaking inside the statue, and for that I
used a very unusual South American percussion instrument called the Cuíca.
There’s a rattan stick attached to the skin of the drum, and when
you pull on that stick with a rosined glove, you get this most incredible
rubbing sound. It is normally used rhythmically, but in my case, I just
use three or four well-placed sound effects. Percussion instruments
have always been used as sound effects. [The Cuíca is similar
to the Lion’s Roar,
an instrument called for by Varèse in his Ionisation
BD: Are you pleased with the recording?
Bach: I’m pleased with the orchestral
part of it. We did not have enough time in the studio to add the
voice appropriately. There are places when the orchestra comes
to a complete stop, and Dalia, my wife, says a line and then the orchestra
starts again. It’s supposed to be short, but in some cases, it
was too short because the narration was recorded separately from the
BD: They splice it in, and there’s no
time in between?
Bach: Yes. We were able to put
some time, in but we had not taken enough of a sound-sample of the
hall. The orchestra was recorded in the old Orpheum Theater
in downtown Omaha. There’s a certain ambiance to every hall, and
you have to take a certain amount of that silence to use in places where
splices like this occur. We didn’t have that much to use, and it was
very costly to rent the hall for the recording session. There were
other concerns, too. I was out in the sound truck, which was pulled
up in the alley, and that’s where all of the sound equipment was. So,
we had no eye-contact with the conductor, or I might have been able to tell
him to leave a little more room in certain places. It came down to
the task of my wife fitting her words into the orchestration.
BD: She had to rush?
Bach: She was recording on a separate
real of tape. She could hear the orchestration through the earphones,
but there was no conducting going on because the conductor, who was
sitting in the control room for the final mix, was not able to give
her the visual cues. Here for the performance in Chicago, we
have a case where the narrator and conductor are on stage together, so
everything is in tandem very, very well. This is actually the second
time The Happy Prince will have been done in Chicago. It
was presented at Grant Park, as part of a series of noontime concerts back
in 1981. My wife was narrating, and Barbara Schubert, who is at the
University of Chicago, was the conducting the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra.
I was amazed at how well those people put it together.
BD: [With amusement] It was Schubert
Bach: That’s right! [Gales of laughter
from both] It’s funny, because my first roommate in college
was named Larry Schubert. I thought this was a marriage made
in Heaven, but he sat up all night playing pinochle, and I had an 8 o’clock
class, so that was the end of that relationship!
* * *
BD: Are you basically pleased with
the other recordings that have been made of your music?
Bach: There is one concern I have, which is
generally that the people who are recording my music very rarely think
that I might be interested in hearing what it sounds like before it is
pressed and released as a recording. I don’t know if other composers
have had this problem. It’s not written down anywhere by BMI
or ASCAP, or the various people that control the recording industry, but
it’s considered a mark of good faith, and just a courtesy to the composer,
that if it’s the first recording, that the composer should have the
right to hear the piece before the final mix-down and pressing.
BD: You don’t usually get that?
Bach: I don’t get that. I won’t tell
you the ones where it’s bad, but in some cases, like with the New
York Brass Quintet, by the time they recorded the piece, they had taken
on two European tours. [Vis-à-vis the recording shown
at right, see my interviews with Gunther Schuller, and
BD: So, they knew it very well?
Bach: They knew it inside and out, so
I had the faith that they were going to do a good job. They weren’t
going to let anything go out that was less than perfect. One
example is Milton Babbitt,
who got a certain amount of money one time to put out a recording, and
the performers had just a certain amount of time to put that recording
together and tape it. These were good performers, but there were
mistakes all over the place. They simply didn’t have the time to fix
it. But Babbitt had to release the recording, and Milton, if you’re
listening, I got that from one of the performers. I’d be happy to
tell you who it is, and you can take it up with him if I’m wrong!
[Both laugh] He was put in an unusual situation. He’d accepted
the grant, and the people who granted him the money expected the recording
to come out. They did not want to just pour money down a hole, so
he was required to do that. What I found very disturbing was the
Musicians’ Union didn’t want these people rehearsing outside of the amount
of time that had been paid for. In fact, they did meet one time in
a kind of clandestine operation at somebody’s apartment in New York
to go over the music, but they did so with very strong guilt feelings because
they were not contracted to do this. When you’re a performing musician
who’s paid, that’s the only service you provide, and you have to be very
careful how much you do for nothing. They were supposed to do this
within the balance of the money that had paid for a certain amount of
rehearsal time, and once that money was gone, that was the end of the
rehearsal, and it was time to record the piece.
BD: I assume that, as a composer, you put in
whatever time is necessary to get your piece right, and then get it
to a publisher?
Bach: I had a publisher that was given
first refusal on anything I wrote, but they bit the dust a couple
of years ago. They were proud that they stayed afloat longer
than G. Schirmer did. G. Schirmer has been absorbed into a big
conglomerate, but my publisher was Galaxy Music, and Galaxy’s principal
money earner was The
Crucible, the opera by Robert Ward, which still
gets such a terrific number of performances around the country. That
was the big money-maker for them, and they were also the American representative
for Stainer & Bell, who had a lot of Vaughan Williams, and Holst’s
pieces. They also published a variety of madrigals, and were the
American representatives for some English publishing concerns. But
I don’t really have a publisher right now. I’m just starting to
submit things around.
BD: But you do spend whatever amount
of time you need on the piece to get it right?
Bach: Yes, I try to.
BD: How do you know when the piece
is right, and finished, and ready to be launched?
Bach: When it’s finished is not when it’s launched!
I always make changes after the piece has been performed the first
time. When the Horn Concerto was performed, I removed
about three minutes’ worth of music in the middle of it. There
was a time when I wouldn’t have done that, but after my experience of
having two operas produced in New York, I realized that’s sometimes the
expedient thing to do... particularly with opera, because you don’t
want people standing on stage with nothing to do. Everything has
to move. One opera was produced by Beverley Sills at Lincoln Center.
BD: Which work was this?
Bach: This was The Student from
Salamanca. It was on a triple bill with works by Tom Pasatieri
and Stanley Silverman, and they were so worried about the piece going
longer than it was intended to. It was supposed to go no longer
than an hour, and it was an hour and five minutes, so they asked me
to chop ten minutes off it. Naturally, what they suggested was
that I chop off the slowest music, but it threw the whole piece into the
wrong proportions and wrong scale, because now we had no really slow
music to offset the fast scurrying music. The thing was about
an old man and a young wife.
BD: It was fifty minutes of frantic music?
Bach: Yes, and their main concern was
that they couldn’t afford to go over — not
because it wasn’t fair to the audience or the piece, but because the
Musicians’ Union charges double time for overtime. They could not
afford to keep the orchestra any longer. Harold Prince was in the
audience, because he was rehearsing Silverlake of Kurt Weill
at the same time. He said, “I don’t know why I work with opera companies.
With a musical, you keep going to your backers, and keep getting
more money until you’ve got it right. But with opera, when the money
has gone, that’s it!” You have just a certain framework to work
with, and he found it very difficult to work within that financial framework.
BD: Can I assume that you saved the music that
was chopped out, and that eventually you’ll get a performance that will
run the full sixty-five minutes?
Bach: No, because I think some of those
minutes needed to be chopped. There are other places where I
chopped a little bit, but I did restore those. The Cleveland Opera,
in fact the very next month after this was done in New York, did a performance,
and I restored some of the music that had been cut, and it worked out
BD: When you’re trying out different
phrases, how do you know when you’ve got the right one?
Bach: [Laughs] You’re going to
create a terrific writer’s block now! I’m going to go back now
and wonder how I did know. The fact is that I don’t know.
It feels right, it still may not be right because the only way you
can really tell is when it’s unfolding in real time. For instance,
I may think that I’ve got more than enough sound from the soloist to penetrate
through a rather heavy orchestral fabric, and it doesn’t. I find that
particularly true of the bassoon. I have a great deal of trouble
making the bassoon come out from a background of string sound.
Other people don’t, and I don’t know why I do. One of the standards
is the Concert Piece for Bassoon and Strings by Burrill Phillips.
You can hear every note on that. I’ve never heard it live, and
the soloist on the old Philadelphia First Chair album might have been
very close to the microphone. But I find that if the bassoon is in
the orchestra, often I have to intensify it with low clarinet or bass
clarinet for it to come through. Or, I have to lighten up the strings,
but that’s an orchestration problem. However, as far as the melodic
ideas, generally I don’t know.
BD: Let me attack the same question slightly
differently. When you’re writing, are you always in control
of what goes on the paper, or there are times when the pencil is somewhat
controlling your hand?
Bach: I’m always in control for the first two
or three minutes of the piece. For instance, with this Euphonium
Concerto that I just finished, I was working on the first eight
measures for three months, at an odd moment here and there, while I was
still teaching at the university. Finally, by the end of the semester,
I was over that hurdle and could move on. The more notes I get, the
faster I go, and eventually I lose myself in the music. But I guess
the big thing is setting the tone for the beginning. What is the personality
of this music? What is it intended to do? Then I have trouble
because people love names. They love to have paintings in the art galleries
named and titled. I don’t just like to call a piece as Movement One,
Movement Two, Movement Three, but finding a name for that first movement
was very hard. I finally called it Legend, which evoked a
dramatic treatment like a ballade, but not to be confused with Chopin’s
pieces. I didn’t want to use that term again, and it sounds a little
bit hoity-toity. I have trouble finding names for the pieces, too,
but getting the tone of the thing is my first concern. There’s also
something special in every piece I write. You were asking me about
my name. I do find some place in every piece to throw a little signature
in. It’s not like the Dmitri Shostakovich signature (sings D-S-C-H
[D, E-flat, C, B-natural]), and it’s not (sings B-A-C-H [B-flat, A, C,
B-natural]), like J.S. Bach worked into some of pieces. It’s always
something that has a derivation from Baroque procedures. In my Woodwind
Quintet, there’s a fugue built on the song Because, which
used to be a very popular wedding song. You will see why it is if
you get the recording of it, and compare it to the fourth movement of
my Woodwind Quintet.
* * *
BD: You do a lot of teaching. What advice do
you have for young composers coming along?
Bach: I wish young composers were not so easily
swayed by the latest fashion. I have to remind myself they don’t
know it’s the latest fashion, but that it’s the fashion they were born
into. We have seen a variety of composition applications in the
twenty-five years that I’ve taught at Northern. Most recently
it’s been Minimalism, and you get a variety of students who think they
can write Minimalism, and for that reason they feel they’re great composers.
I said the same thing when I was in school. There were abstract
expressions of painters, and as soon as painting turned more towards
representation of the human figure again, these people were lost. They
just couldn’t do it. I’ve seen twelve-tone come and go, and I’ve
seen the ‘happenings’ of
the ’60s, and a kind of ‘dada-esque’ type of music.
I’ve seen music which was nothing more than a set of tools which were
given to the performers, who were then told to put them together into
a piece somehow. In that way, I’m very conservative. I mentioned
earlier that I like to control people. I like to feel there’s some
place on Earth where people will follow the orders that are given to them
if there’s some purpose that is higher than they are. I’m hoping
some of my music is that way, because I do work it out very, very carefully.
Sometimes I think I throw the baby out with the bath water, because the
initial inspiration gets changed so much by the time the piece is ready
to roll. Sometimes it is not at all the piece I intended to write.
BD: Then are you’re surprised where it
Bach: I’m surprised, but most is a matter of
screening through a net of a certain degree of structure, clarity, consistency
and control. That might be a good thing to keep in mind, because
there are many more composers than there were when I was first writing.
BD: Are there too many?
Bach: There may be. Nicolas Slonimsky
said there were. He said his big biographical dictionary [Baker’s
Biographical Dictionary of Musicians] had many composers who are dead,
and many others who should be! [Much laughter] David Raksin called me
a couple of weeks ago. He knew Slonimsky all his life, and
he said that Slonimsky has strict orders from his publishers not to
include any new names in the new edition, but to wait for the 2000 edition.
[Coming back to the topic] But the young composer really is
very easily dazzled by all sorts of techniques. We now have the
techniques that he hears of different composers, but also the success
some of these composers have enjoyed.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future
Bach: Oh, there’ll always be music! I’m
not so sure it’s going to be the kind that I would appreciate, but then
I don’t know that Mozart would be able to appreciate Richard Strauss,
for instance, or the highly chromatic composers of the last century.
If Mozart thought that Wagner was a continuation of the operatic tradition
that he left, with so many beautiful works of music, I don’t think it’s
my place to say newer music is going to be different, therefore it’s
no good. I would hope that there would still be a certain degree
of craftsmanship, and seriousness of purpose no matter what people write.
Kenneth Gaburo said it very well many years ago, when I was studying
with him. He said I had to get around the notion that the music was
working for me, but I had to work for the music. I had to be a
kind of amanuensis for the music. Roy Harris said that, too. When
people would say, “Oh, I like that melody in the Third Symphony,”
he’d say, “Well, I didn’t really write that, you know. I just
heard that music in the air, and I wrote it down.” He was very
humble in that way. He felt he was the agent, or medium through which
this music passed. That’s when I know the music is going well
— when I feel that way. When I feel that
what I’m writing it is just there in the air, and I’m the agency through
which it passes, that is the best.
BD: Is that when composing is fun?
Bach: Yes, but I’m very suspicious of
that kind of writing, because if it doesn’t come out like I expect,
or if I don’t get terrific birth pains in writing the piece of music, I
feel that it can’t be worthwhile. When it comes too easy, there’s
the danger of being too facile. There’s always that danger.
There are certain composers — Malcolm Arnold, for
instance, who writes very enjoyable concert music,
but there’s something disturbingly facile about it. I don’t
know if he ever really thought about a measure before he wrote it.
BD: It just happens?
Bach: It just happens. He was also
a performer. Leroy Anderson sweated out every measure, which is
a lot of trouble to go to, to come out with sixty-four bars, because
all of his pieces fall into that standard number of measures that you
associate with pop music. But there is an incredible amount of
sensitivity there. You may be surprised that I’m saying that about
BD: [With a gentle nudge] He sweated
over every keystroke of The Typewriter???
Bach: Yes, and the bell at the end
of each line! [More laughter, and then he reminisced about a couple
other oddities] There’s a wonderful old piece by Charles Hamm
called Round, which was at one time played at the Round House
concerts that John Garvey had in Urbana. Various composers of
University of Illinois would contribute. Hamm was teaching there,
and he got the idea of ornamenting Frère Jacques and writing
it on something that looks like a lampshade. It was circular,
and about that width, and he rigged it up to something that had a
rheostat controlling a motor. The speed would go faster and faster.
There were either instrumentalists or singers who would stand around it,
and as that portion of the lampshade came around to their place, they
would sing their part. It was a wonderful piece. It was done
in this huge round building in Urbana that was John Garvey’s home.
John directed the University of Illinois Jazz Band, and was the violist
of the Walden String Quartet for years. I don’t know if Slonimsky knew
about that particular piece, but he came up with a piece that you were supposed
to assemble. It was published in Source magazine, and was
called The Möbius Strip Tease. The möbius strip
was a long strip of paper, and you put a half turn in it when you glue
the two ends together, so you end up with a single surface. Then,
when you come around the surface that you were tracing with your finger,
it is now on the inside where it was on the outside before.
BD: So there’s a twist in it?
Bach: Yes! He had written this
music that was supposed to be played in such a way that when you hit
the twist, the thing would be upside down and backwards.
BD: So you get retrograde inversion!
Bach: That’s right! [Much laughter]
It was hilarious, and I wondered why this great musicologist would
waste his time doing something like this, and in doing so, basically
putting down that whole movement that was really very, very strong at
that time. I’m sure that he must be very surprised to see somebody
like Roger Reynolds,
who was at one time part of that movement, winning the Pulitzer Prize.
I sent Roger a note saying he’d finally joined the ranks of the
conservative! [Laughs] But Roger had some of his early music
published in Source magazine. Roger and I split
the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1961. We were both studying
with Roberto Gerhard, who wrote a Concerto For Orchestra which is
very nice. He died in 1968. He lived right outside Cambridge,
and in England they have these little pay-phones right in the middle of
the country. So I went into one. I was only a block away from
his house, and I called his wife, and said I was in Cambridge for the afternoon,
and asked if I stop by and see Mr. Gerhard. I always called him that.
She said she was so sorry, but he’d just had another stroke, and couldn’t
be disturbed. That turned out to be his last stroke.
[At this point, the cassette ran out. Having spoken
for ninety minutes, we decided there was plenty of material for several
I thanked him for taking the time to visit with me, and assured him
that his thoughts would be put to good use, along with recordings of his
---- ---- ----
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in in Chicago on October 29, 1990.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB a week later, and again
in 1997. This transcription was made
in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.
My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her
help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final
moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines
and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast
series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical
are invited to visit his website for more information
about his work, including selected transcripts
of other interviews, plus a full list of his
guests. He would also like to call your attention
to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.